Imprisoned Palestinian leader’s entry shakes up planned vote

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK (AP) — A popular Palestinian leader imprisoned by Israel has registered his own parliamentary list in May elections, his supporters said on Wednesday, in a last-minute shakeup that could severely weaken President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and help its militant Hamas rivals.

Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, registered the list hours before the deadline set by the election commission. Polls indicate it would split the vote for Fatah, potentially paving the way for another major victory by Hamas. That increases the likelihood that Abbas will find a way to call off the first Palestinian elections in 15 years.

Barghouti, 61, a former Fatah militant commander, is serving five life sentences in Israel following a 2004 terrorism conviction. But he remains a popular and charismatic leader, and by breaking with Abbas he could reshape Palestinian politics and potentially replace him as president.

His entry reflects growing frustration with Abbas, who has presided over an increasingly authoritarian and unpopular Palestinian Authority that has failed to achieve national unity or advance Palestinian hopes for an independent state.

It’s unclear how Barghouti’s rise would affect relations with Israel. Both he and Abbas want a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, but there have been no substantive peace talks in over a decade. Israel is unlikely to release Barghouti regardless of his political fortunes, and may refuse to engage with a leader it views as a terrorist.

Abbas has decreed parliamentary and presidential elections for May and July this year, the first since 2006, when Hamas won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. That precipitated a crisis that led to Hamas’ seizure of Gaza from Abbas’s forces the following year, leaving the West Bank and Gaza divided between rival governments.

File photo shows Marwan Barghouti at Jerusalem’s court. PHOTO: AP